Something I like to think about is the idea of challenge. We are a culture obsessed with this notion–always striving for improvements and the excitement that challenge can bring. Something I have noticed, though, especially over the last few years, is that in general, people are more inspired to challenge their bodies rather than their minds. Furthermore, when they DO challenge their minds, it’s often aggressive or competitive. We want to be stronger than others, look better than others, be smarter, funnier, faster, and more attractive.
I do not count myself outside of this realm. For as long as I can remember I’ve been competitive, preferring to abandon hobbies or activities which I didn’t seem to naturally excel at. I even switched majors (briefly) in college, when I realized I was no longer the best artist in the room and would have to work hard (truly) to BE the best (or one of). I eventually got my ego under control and switched back, though I didn’t master hard work until much later (and I STILL haven’t mastered fear of failure). I’m also guilty of some really silly things: In high school, I was determined to get six-pack abs (who the HELL knows why), and kept a photographic diary of my stomach as it “improved”. Those photos should be burned.
But let’s get back to the point. Why are so few of us inspired to challenge our minds by stilling or quieting them? Why is a vigorous vinyasa yoga class considered “more challenging” than a restorative yoga class? Personally, I think I’d struggle more in the restorative class, especially if I was in one of my more manic moods. Why are we always driven toward challenges that excite us or inflate our egos rather than those that quiet us and help shrink our egos? Is it cultural, or is that human nature?
Well. I am not really sure. I’d have to say it’s more cultural. But that is besides the point. My point is this: while there is absolutely nothing wrong with viewing yoga as a physical challenge, we might benefit by sometimes approaching it as more of a mental challenge. To challenge boredom or restlessness in the mind by means of sitting, stilling, and chilling. Wow, I really impressed myself with that one! Anyway–why not shake things up a little? Why not attempt to curb our appetites for achievement or measurable success and instead feed ourselves something a little less conventional? Why not, instead of feeding our egos, choose to feed our souls? Why NOT embrace the challenge of stilling our minds, stepping out of the spotlight, and sitting in the quiet with whatever might come up–even if it’s sad, unsettling, boring, or just plain unpleasant?
I don’t think there is a single person walking this earth that couldn’t benefit from taking this particular challenge: to be willing to sit, to be quiet, to focus, to still our minds. Except maybe the buddhas out there (who are already practicing this every day, anyway), ALL OF US can benefit from a mental challenge. I urge every one, yoga practitioners and not, to spend a few days a week working out their minds, building mental muscles instead of physical ones, and looking inward–honestly and quietly, instead of looking out. And I don’t mean sitting around just thinking… we all think too much. I mean BEING, allowing the thoughts and feelings to come and go without following them or trying to push them away.
I can attest from experience: it is sometimes WHOLLY unpleasant, this mindfulness thing, but that’s also the beauty of it. It is completely honest. It can be boring, satisfying, frightening, sad, easy, difficult, pleasant, etc. It is not the kind of meditation that pretends to be a pathway to peace; it’s more of a pathway to truth, to being, to presence–with whatever it is that exists within us, and around us. If we can get there, peace, and enlightenment, aren’t very far away.
So! Whether you’re a yogi, a runner, a wrestler, or a car salesman (or none of the above), consider taking a mental challenge once in a while. It might be a sitting or horizontal meditation, it might be a mindful walk, it might be a restorative or slow-paced yoga class. It’s not as exciting, and it’s not as rewarding (immediately), but it IS good for us. And the rewards (because there ARE always rewards), if we’re patient enough to stick with this practice, are boundless.